Typically I would warn readers about upcoming spoilers for a review such as this, but the entire premise of “Knock at the Cabin” is the spoiler. The trailers strategically give away the plot to get you to the theater and this is one of those all too familiar cases, where the preview is far better than the feature it’s cut from.
It’s tough to point to any one thing wrong in this movie and blame it as the cause of being boring and nearly unwatchable. M. Night Shyamalan has proven himself a very capable director in the past and the setup is solid enough to create a riveting story. Yet, somehow a tale of calamity and apocalypse resting on the shoulders of three innocents held hostage in a cabin, has no emotional draw or strong character arcs to make us invest in the story. With this remote setting, we’re also robbed of the fun of witnessing nearly all of any cataclysm first hand, which packed theaters for fun summer films such as “Armageddon” and “Independence Day”. Even M. Night’s previous installments of “Signs”, and “The Happening” (ever flawed though it may be) were infinitely more watchable with the moments crafted to break the tension and monotony between scenes. This film is different, in that it is designed to come across as tense. The lack of visible devastation is made to add to the doubt of the main character’s decision, but it’s a poorly executed song that plays just one note far too long.
Ultimately, writer and director M. Night Shyamalan is a victim of his own initial success. Riding high off one of the greatest twists in cinematic history in “The Sixth Sense”, and a string of powerhouse children’s performances that created future stars, M. Night had the formula for success. He used it well in his first three studio films following with “Unbreakable” and “Signs”. Then it seems, he embraced his own hype. Pushing to create unique twists and having an unknown affinity for repeatedly casting Bryce Dallas Howard, he quickly veered off course. The luster immediately faded, and previous brilliance appeared as a fluke. Starting with The “Village”, the poor reviews and missing acclaim lasted over a decade, until James McAvoy’s performance single handedly carried the surprise hit “Split” and resurrected M. Night’s name in 2016.
Shyamalan smartly followed up “Split” with the sequel, “Glass” to capitalize on its success, but again the result was ultimately disappointing. Even with McAvoy returning his screen time was diminished and the poor attempt to tie in “Unbreakable” and deliver a twist, fizzled.
Today’s M. Night film’s feel like Twilight Zone episodes that were stretched from 30 minutes to 90. If the twist came at the 29 minute mark just before the end credits, we’d all enjoy them and look forward to the next episode. In a feature film however, the audience has long figured out the punchline by the hour mark and is just waiting for it to be over.
At surface level, “Knock at the Cabin” looks to be a filmmaker going back to his roots. A small, anxious environment is created with supernatural influence and a cute kid thrown in the mix. It has worked well in the past. The performances however were severely lacking. In the worst dialogue written since “The Village” it was apparent that the actors were stumbling over the script and not given room to add anything other than dramatic pauses. Likewise, the premise of the film fails to deliver on anything deep. The entire setup is a basic philosophy 101 question shrouded in pseudo religious wrapping, yet at no point do we really see the main characters discuss the sacrifice of an innocent or devolve as they struggle with who should live or die.
In the opening minutes, four dissimilar strangers arrive to a remote cabin in the woods, occupied by a vacationing couple and their adopted daughter. They break in and subdue the three immediately, while orating the ground rules of the coming apocalypse. The repeated emphasis is that the decision that must be made of choice and sacrifice. Each of the four seemingly normal people are carrying homemade tools that look imposing yet are dated and oddly ineffectual. The visitors immediately spout of their supernatural visions and what brought them together from across the country, yet at no point are we the audience treated to any glimpses into this, which was one of the more intriguing parts of the story. There is also no attempt to dive into the crux of the film’s religious dogma of what is ultimately a tale of a God / Gods / Universe demanding human sacrifice to save the multitude. It’s a story that doesn’t care to dig into religion or offend anyone while also trying to hit on tenets of multiple religions, through extreme vagueness.
From this point forward the film consists of talking heads and creative angles attempting to break up the tedious speeches. It feels like watching classroom presentations as the others stand quietly and still faced in the background, waiting for their turn to speak.
When a “no” is given and no member of the family choses to sacrifice themselves or even discuss it, one of the four captors surrenders themselves to be killed by the other three. It brings about a plague that will kill millions to billions. Or so we’re told that’s what is happening. Again, we don’t see it.
What we as the audience do get to see is the characters watching the tv from the cabin covering news reports of the aftermath of various disasters. That’s right, we watch them watch television. Aside from one POV shot of a tidal wave on cell phone, we are always separated from the big CGI action of the film. One could argue this is all by design to make the characters feel distant from humanity and aid in the doubt cast by one of the choosers, who thinks it is a scam or delusion. I would be more forgiving if Shyamalan hadn’t already showed that he can build more suspense with less. He demonstrated this in “Signs” where we barely get more than a glimpse of the monster until the very end. We were allowed to create terror by filling in the gaps of the unseen. This is not the case here.
One couldn’t help but feel that in the film, this was a budgetary choice and the decision to not let us enjoy the apocalypse was made to save a buck. The cheapness definitely shone through as this ultimately was a one set piece, one room, kidnapping film and at no point do we feel trapped, claustrophobic, or even torn about the decision that “must” be made. The cabin itself was just a place to tell the story and really played no part in the tale other than a reason to have no cell reception to call for help.
Dave Bautista dominates the screen time as he leads the cast of capable talent, accompanied by Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Rupert Grint, and newcomer Kristen Cui. Yet they are all boxed in by “Knock at the Cabin”. In a tale of life and death on a global scale, we get few moments of humanity and realness from the cast of seven. For the most part, everyone is unnecessarily calm and delivers dialogue with no sense of urgency or emotion for the world that is dying or people being murdered before them.
The only moments that pull us into the story are the small flashbacks telling the love story of Groff, Aldridge, and their adoption of Cui. These glimpses are a welcome break in the tale and allow us to see them laughing, bonding, and coming together as a family. Even more peculiar, is that it wasn’t used to give them depth and crumble their facades in making this choice. When a sacrifice is finally made it isn’t a journey to get there, so much as tantamount to a kid having to eat their vegetables to get dessert. “Fine, I’ll do it already” is about as good as we get in this film. At that point, we as an audience are also grateful that the end (of the film) is near.
Ultimately there’s no twist, no arc, no special moments that make this worth your tangible or digital dollars. “Split” proved to be a flash in the pan that interrupted what was a decade plus streak of bad films from M. Night Shyamalan. Unfortunately, this entry fits right in with most of his work. It’s a fun sounding, yet unrealized premise delivered by someone with the talent and ability to make great film. The lackluster result is the real catastrophe.